Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS the children playing so happily, their excitement enhanced by exploration of something new, that hurt the most. They ran through the big ship, at least as far as security would allow, all on a grand adventure. Off to a new planet. Just for them. It was such a thrill. So full of expectations. Where the imagination of children created a planet in colourful designs. What would they do there?
They would build a home as fantastic and impractical as children could imagine. Impossible architecture, no concept of engineering parameters. Only joy.
Car Riecker watched them hop past. Their varied faces, all flushed with intensity, filled him with a deep nostalgia for a future that would never be. Not for these children. Not for them. Not for their children’s children, not for their great grandchildren nor their great, great . . . .
Car stopped counting how many “greats” there were in more than 200 generations.
Space travel was slow, dangerous, and uncertain. Humanity had envisioned Earth-like planets long before space travel was even possible. Science had given hope that new worlds would be found “close to home.” Stories and ideas that proposed superlight travel, folding space, time warps, jumpspace — all nonsense! There was no jumping across space in the blink of an eye. It all had to be crossed just as it was. Nor were there such things as super engines or warp drives. Only low power, hybrid, combustion-solar engines that wouldn’t accelerate to more than one-one hundredth the speed of light.
It would take years before the colony ship got up to that speed — three thousand kilometres per second. It seemed fast. It was fast. But not measured against light years. As far as light travelled in one year would take them 100 years. Torstan system had one good Earth class planet. It was 59.3 light years from Earth; in a straight line. It was going to take them 6,000 years to get there.
The children ran past again, screeching and laughing. Their parents were too busy with protocol to worry about them. They couldn’t get lost anyway. The ship was docked at a station orbiting Mars. There was nowhere else to go.
Car wondered for the umpteenth time why he had agreed to pilot this colony ship. If there was a purpose at all to life it was being able to get somewhere, accomplish something. None of them would survive. They wouldn’t live to see the next star system — only four light years away — 400 years away!
The big thrill for them would be when they could officially say they had left their own solar system. Only 8 billion kilometres out past the planetoids of Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris — nearly two years as they slowly accelerated to maximum. Only at that moment would they be able to say they had finally left home. Finally, they were on their way — to death. Because they would never arrive anywhere. Not them. Not these children. They would grow old and die on this ship. Their childish excitement would die before them as they learned they would never build fantastic homes — anywhere. Not them. Not their children’s children, nor their great grandchildren.
“All ready, sir.”
Car turned to see his First Mate Scott Harlan, crisp and clean; navy blue uniform, polished black shoes. Well ordered. Young.
“Thank-you Scott. I’ll be right there. Secure dockside.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the sailors’ response. Scott gave a crisp salute; a perfect regulation salute. He turned away sharply. Off to do his duty.
There would be duty and routine and ceremony. Why had he agreed to pilot this ship? Frantic parents gathered up laughing children under soft, flashing alerts, “…come and watch as we take off. You can wave good-bye to grandma.”
Any enticement to break their raw enjoyment of tearing around in circles on a bright, big ship. Their new home. Their coffin.
The bridge of the colony ship was a spacious oval with big screens in the short curve dead-centre. The Captain’s chair was a powerhouse of functions arrayed along both arms. To mark its prime importance, it sat back centre to midpoint, surrounded by a wide semi-circular walkway.
Car stepped through the double sliding doors and made his way up the ample rampway; spread neatly with a blue-gold carpet, made for wear and tear.
“All secure dockside, sir. A – waiting your order.” Scott separated ‘awaiting’ into two words with a long emphasis on the first “a.”
Car scanned the bridge. Twelve people plus a captain. It took three people to run the S-shaped navigation board. It was jet black. It sat two steps below and two metres in front of the captain’s chair. Everyone had a function.
Car was tempted to let Scott do the honours — to give the order to disembark and engage the main drive. Scott would have loved it. But he was also very much “by the book.” More so today. The First Mate had his role to play, the Captain had his own. It was a ceremony in itself. Was Car playing his role? How did someone like Scott see the Captain’s role in the launching of Earth’s first long-range colony ship? A 6,000 year project.
“Very well. Check all berths,” Car ordered the routine.
“All green. All hatchways secure,” the Chief Engineer, Jason Cahier, rhymed off.
“Confirm ‘all clear’ from Control,” Car ordered, keeping in time.
“Control-has-given-the-all-clear, sir!” Even the Chief Navigator, Frida Tavistock, was getting into the sing-song ceremony of launch orders as she punctuated each word by a marked caesura.
Car stood steadfast at the rails of the oval bridge chamber, a huge room raised up from the wide access ramp slanting up from the double sliding doors. The big screens showed images of the outside in 360 panorama filling the forward bulkhead. The bulkhead was a solid metal-synthetic wall filled with images of real life in real time. A movie about where you were going, where you came from and what was around you. Was he displaying the proper image? Exuding the correct emotional air for the moment?
He couldn’t care less!
“Disengage from dock,” Car said, as thoughts of children running through the ship suddenly seemed more important to him.
A big playground. An adventure of millennia. Would their children see it differently? This ship? Their destination? Their origins? They would be taught about Earth, the exploration of space, the science of colonization and their ultimate destination. Would they care? They would be taught to care. For 6,000 years they would be taught to value what we valued today. Was that a plausible expectation? That someone 6,000 years from now would value the same things we did? What about 20 years from now? The ship would be all they knew.
“The order is . . . Engage the main drive,” Car said on cue.
Questions raced in as the great ship lurched silently forward. Or was it to one side? Why did he accept this assignment? Why do all these people want to leave their homes?
“Confirm heading: Standard zero-one-four-zero,” He ordered the air. He knew navigation would receive and respond.
“Heading, Standard zero-one-four-zero. Confirmed.” Frida echoed from navigation.
Engineers and environmentalists had it all worked out. The ship could sustain 1000 people indefinitely if — IF — they followed the procedures. Everything got recycled. Even the dead. Oxygen and water and food would, of course, eventually run out unless it was all reproduced onboard. They had it all worked out. Greenhouses, artificial condensers, small livestock, soil nutrition, light waves and quality, energy emissions — on and on — for 6,000 years. More if they had to. Indefinitely if they could. If they followed the procedures.
“We have launch. I repeat. We have launch,” Frida called out, excited, oblivious to what it all meant.
Navigation got the best lines. Everyone was cheering. Car was smiling broadly too. It was broadcast across the ship, to the station on Mars, to the moon colony, orbital stations and to Earth. They could all share in the final moment. The beginning. Cheering could be heard throughout the corridors of the ship. Car imagined the children jumping up and down, waving to grandmothers they couldn’t see and who couldn’t see them.
Two hundred and ninety six colonists. Hand-picked. Was that a proper way to refer to how people were chosen to fill the first “Habitational Vessel?” Families or families to be, genetically screened, achievement tested, emotion solid, smart, responsible; the list went on as long as a roll of toilet paper. What a crock of shit! Anybody who would sign on to a suicide mission like this was a born misfit.
So what was Car doing here? He had been picked too. Out of 109 pilot applicants, all dying to command the first interstellar colony ship. He hadn’t actually put his own name into the fray. It came up from his section head. He was informed and ordered to report. So he went through the tests hoping to be trashed at 42 years of age. The training and competitions were designed for young studs. He was dazed the whole time. Not really thinking. He could have dropped out anytime. Some did. Many more were cut within three weeks. The “course” continued. He never cared much for excelling on the tests or beating his fellow applicants or winning pilot competitions. He just went through the steps. And came out on top.
“Accelerating now. Steady burn to Mark one-one-seven,” the engineer called out.
Jason was a Class A engineer and a bit of an inventor too. He was the kind of guy who would work with a cigarette dangling from his mouth like it was glued onto his lower lip. Naturally, regulations didn’t allow smoking.
“Looking good, sir. All clear.” Scott was on a high. Flushed, dramatic. Standing beside the Captain. His place. His function.
Car gave the expected reply. Unnecessary really. It wasn’t as if they were suddenly going to come to their senses, stop the ship and go home. They were here now. Might as well accept it.
“Steady as she goes.” He kept his voice impassive. It added to the drama. A dull script made exciting because it was happening to them.
He scanned the bridge. Clean, bright, metal-synthetic alloys, machines and currents and electro-magnetic shielding, compressors and servos to keep them safe, blinking lights and soft sounds from a dozen control panels, without which they would have no idea what was going on or when to make the next course adjustments. All stationed by well-trained, knowledgeable crews.
As long as they ran the systems at optimum, kept to the routines, maintained the components as they went along, everything would be fine. For 6,000 years, or indefinitely, if they followed the procedures. Children didn’t follow procedures. They had their own games. What games would their great, great . . . play?
“First Mate, Scott Harlan. You have the bridge. I’ll go greet our passengers.” They referred to them as passengers, not colonists.
Scott saluted Car. Car saluted Scott. Information was repeated three times around the oval bridge:
“First Mate Scott Harlan has the bridge. First Mate Scott Harlan has the bridge. First Mate Scott Harlan has the bridge.”
Car got the hell out of there!
He considered not performing the greet-the-passengers routine. It was in the protocol, but the passengers didn’t know that. He had already stood on the gangplank as all 296 passengers trundled onboard. Scott Harlan and the Chief Data Comm, Xiao Feng, stood beside him, a bit back, to let the passengers see who was Captain. Not difficult for Xiao. She was barely five feet tall to Car’s six foot one.
They kept up that ritual for more than an hour. Polished, confident, easy tones — as if they had done this a dozen times before. It was all recorded. They knew it was being recorded. Everything they did was recorded — all the time! You quickly forgot that someone was watching, or might later scrutinize every action, every word, any speck of glint on your soul.
For what purpose? What the hell would they do if you “up and gave them the finger” as you crossed the orbit of the Kuiper Belt; out past Pluto and the other dwarf planets? Chase after you? Send a radio signal more than 8 billion kilometres to relieve you of command? There wasn’t a damn thing they could do. But it was all recorded. For posteriori.
“History,” Car reminded himself — not your rear end.
Now the passengers were in high spirits, strolling through the great ship, children pointing and hopping while parents tried to pretend they weren’t just as excited. Car wondered at the psychology of referring to them as passengers. I guess you aren’t a colonist until you settle down somewhere. These not-colonists seemed to be oblivious to the fact that they were as settled as someone could possibly be. There were no choices to make about where to live. This was it! They had to make a life for themselves on this ship — with no options to move somewhere else. They were, for all posteriori, the first people to colonize a space ship.
Car greeted young families wandering the decks as they familiarized themselves with the ship. They were all bright, young, responsible people. The adults themselves wouldn’t just be enjoying a little exploration of their new home. It was for the children. The children wanted to see everything. It was a big, mysterious toy.
“The children wanted to see the ship,” they all seemed to say the same thing. “How can we deny them a little fun? After all, this is their new home.”
Did the mother’s voice crack? Car heard it. The first pain of nostalgia. Or was it regret? A young mother, maybe 29. Pretty. One daughter. Car would eventually learn all 296 names and faces. He considered this young woman. One of 138 females, next to 153 males; only 121 were of adult age – only 60 single men, including the 42-year-old Captain.
A small town. Small town gossip. No more girls’ night out, no more flirting with admirers, no late night parties. Yes, her voice did crack.
“We’re here to make this as comfortable as possible for you,” Car heard himself saying. How the hell were they going to fulfill that promise over the next 60 years of her life, let alone 6,000?
But she seemed to take some comfort in it. Looking in his eyes. Maybe she saw something certain. Maybe just a father figure. Maybe a “silver fox.” Maybe she just saw someone who knew exactly what they were facing. Someone who could say, “All right. Let’s stop this nonsense and just go home.” Or he might as easily say, “We’re here now. And we will make the best of it.’”
Maybe, Car thought, Maybe we will . . . if we break a few rules.
“Are you the Captain?” A little girl — eight years old — had her mother’s Bulgarian eyes. She said it like a challenge. To make him prove that his polished shoes and hardened epaulets were on a tight pressed uniform and not some costume.
Car felt an honest sense of joy at the innocent confrontation. The girl was playing with him. He instinctively bent to one knee to greet her face to face as her mother tried to apologize.
“I sure am. I’m Captain Car Riecker. And who might you be?”
“I might be anyone, but you wouldn’t know,” she taunted him.
“Monica! Stop it! Say, ‘hello’ politely to the nice Captain.”
“The nice Captain.” Is that what he was?
“Mommy, you’re not supposed to say my name.”
“That was very clever, Monica,” Car said, wishing her mother had stayed out of it. “Perhaps we can play hide-and -seek on this big ship sometime?”
“Do you like riddles?” she asked, sceptically.
Car enjoyed her straightforward candour. “Not particularly.” An honest answer in kind. “What do you like to play?”
Monica made a face like she was thinking hard, a little smile on her face. This was the game she liked to play.
“I don’t know. I’m big now. Can I sit in the Captain’s chair?” Her eyes danced at her own clever twist to the game.
“Monica!” Her mother scolded, unnecessarily.
“That’s all right, Mrs. Stark,” Car stated as he straightened up to face the mother. “I think I can bend the rules a little.” He turned again to face the expectation waning on Monica’s face.
“As long as you keep it a secret, okay? Otherwise I’d have to let everyone sit in my chair.” He smiled.
Car laughed. “You’re quite right, Monica. There aren’t that many children onboard and there’s plenty of time for everyone to get a chance. And we shouldn’t play favourites, should we? Why, I bet every kid onboard could take a turn in the chair in less than an hour.”
Monica grinned brightly.
“We really should be going, Captain,” Mrs. Stark tugged at Monica’s arm, embarrassed.
Car didn’t understand why. Where the hell would they be going? He was perfectly happy listening to the childish wants and tones — of a child.
“But mommy, I want to sit in the Captain’s chair.”
“Another time, dear. The Captain is busy.”
No I’m not, Car kept to himself. What was bothering this woman? Too pretty. Too married. Not enough single men and much less opportunity anyway. Christ! 60 years of this?
“I’ll tell you what, Monica.” Car squatted down again, more so to force Mrs. Stark to wait. “You get all your chores done and settle in, I’ll leave a note for Sammy Benz, he’s the watch commander, that a Miss Monica Stark is expected on the bridge. He’ll page me immediately, and you can sit in the chair.”
He stood up. “Your mother can come along too, if she likes.” He nodded graciously to Mrs. Stark, a quick wink between adults, some inside plan they both would understand; although Mrs. Stark was catching on that she was the one who had just been played.
Monica skipped to one side of her tugging mother, “Aye aye, Captain,” she said, smartly, and threw him a near perfect salute.
Car controlled his smile, tried to look official, and snapped off a clean parade-ground salute in return.
Little Monica would have squealed she was so happy but she was smart enough to know that her mother was at the end of her patience with her. She ran back to her mother who was half-turned, trying to keep a polite smile, beckoning furiously for Monica to “come.”
Monica hugged her mother hard, warmly — good psychology — a quick peak back at Captain Car, who watched them go with infinite patience.
“I met the Captain, mommy, and he saluted me.” She hugged her mother’s leg again.
As they went around the corner — not forever — Mrs. Stark shot a quick glance back at Car Riecker — 42-years old, dashingly handsome, hard fit, military trained, a real gentleman.
Too pretty. Car resumed his leisurely stroll and greet-the-passengers protocol. Too young. Too married. Too uptight. The list of shortcomings was too long.
Car smiled at the memory of little Monica standing sharply in salute; proud, beaming, confident. He hoped that she would be allowed to come to the bridge. People had overcome much larger obstacles; like launching a 6,000-year colony project. He brightened in anticipation. If there was a long wait until some unknown future, the children were worth the time.